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Line managers and the daily round of work: the front-line defense against sexual harassment.

Line Managers and the Daily Round of Work: The Front-Line Defense Against Sexual Harrassment

In light of the extensive nature of sexual harassment and the enormous costs that organizations and their members incur as a result of such conduct, it should be no surprise that sexual harassment in the workplace is a major topic of concern. While there has certainly been no shortage of articles about ways to combat sexual harassment, little has been written about the rule of line managers in such efforts. Nevertheless, line managers have a central role to play in keeping the workplace free from sexual harassment.

Since the early 1970s, a number of surveys have documented the extent and impact of sexual harassment in the workplace. Based on these investigations it is now generally recognized that sexual harassment is a major problem confronting a large portion of the workplace, especially women. Conservative estimates suggest that approximately 40 percent of working women and five to ten percent of their male counterparts have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Not only is this problem widespread, it has profound effects on people's lives. For instance, victims report suffering physical and psychological symptoms (headaches, backaches, chronic fatigue, damaged self esteem, depression), loss of employment, and diminished morale and productivity.

The impact of sexual harassment on organizations is also profound. Sexual harassment is now seen as a violation of federal, state, and local civil rights acts. Employment litigation centering on sexual harassment has proven quite costly to many organizations that have been required to pay settlements and legal fees that occasionally exceed six figures. These local costs appear minor, however, compared with human resource losses attributed to sexual harassment, namely, decreased morale/productivity and increased absenteeism and turnover. For example, one recent study of 160 Fortune 500 companies estimated average company losses in excess of $6.7 million a year due to sexual harassment.

Solutions to the problem of sexual harassment generally consists of recommendations for developing and disseminating clearly defined policy statements, establishing accessible in-house grievance procedures, and conducting sexual harassment awareness training. While such prescriptions are essential, they seem to imply that staff specialists (training specialists, EEO specialists, and HRM specialists) are solely responsible for dealing with this problem. In fact, most practical guides on the subject have been targeted to just such specialists. This is unfortunate, since on-going line management cooperation and support is critical for maintaining a harassment-free environment.

There are number of routine managerial processes that can be used to effectively combat sexual harassment. In particular, there are four distinct opportunities for the line manager to integrate sexual harassment prevention into his or her daily round of work life.

* Managing organizational entry of new employees.

* Managing the individual performance.

* Managing the work environment.

* Handling grievances and complaints.

The impact of early experiences on the work-related attitudes and behavior of new employees has been well-documented. Through personnel selection, orientation, and initial socialization of new employees, front-line managers can play a critical role in creating the harassment-free workplace.

Today, many line managers are actively involved in employee selection, primarily through the interview process. While we generally view the applicant interview as a chance to assess the applicant's task knowledge, skills, and abilities, it can also be used as an early prevention tool in the fight against sexual harassment. Questions focused on the job applicant's past working relationships, attitudes to ward female co-workers, perceptions of work-related differences between men and women, beliefs about social-sexual interaction in the workplace, and thoughts about the seriousness of sexual harassment are not only appropriate, but, serve three important functions. First, they are effective at screening candidates who are not likely to "fit" with the core values of the organization; in particular, with the commitment to a harassment-free environment. Second, they provide valuable insights into the applicant's likely future conduct in the workplace. Third, including such questions signals the commitment of the organization and the manager to providing a non-threatening and harassment-free work climate. Such issues are as important to individual performance and productivity as the traditional assessment of task-related skills and abilities.

All too often, orientations for new employees consist of little more than a brief overview of policies and procedures, along with discussions of employee benefits, followed by brief on-the-job technical training. Surely, orienting new employees into the central values and expectations of workplace behavior is no less important than discussing time cards, break times, and cafeteria hours! But orienting line employees to appropriate social-sexual behavior is not solely the job of HR specialists. In fact, the line manager is likely to be far more effective at it. On-the-job orientation stressing a harassment-free work environment as necessary to maintaining a high-performance and highly-satisfied work unit is a line manager's responsibility. Once again, the orientation phase of entry is an opportunity for the line-manager to create an initial expectation on the part of new employees that maintaining harassment-free work relations is an integral part of his or her work-related performance.

The initial few months of employment have been shown to be important to an employee's future behavior in the workplace. This is a critical period in which the new employee is socialized into the core values and norms of behavior of the organization. Most of this socialization and learning takes place informally on the job, but line managers can clearly influence the process. For example, assigning a newcomer to a model employee who responds to female employees based on their work-roles rather than their sex-roles is a simple yet effective way of building appropriate norms and behavior in new employees. Formal "mentioning" programs, with appropriate training and selection of mentors, can help in this process. Similarly, the probationary period can allow managers to evaluate the social-sexual interactions of the new employees alongside traditional skills/abilities and can show the central importance of such interactions to performance and to the employee's future success.

Expectations established by the early experiences of employees must be reinforced through the line manager's central day-to-day task: managing the work performance of employees. Through formal performance reviews and day-to-day feedback, line managers can effectively combat sexual harassment. In fact, line managers have a powerful personal incentive to do just that-sexual harassment in the line manager's unit is likely to reduce the work unit's productivity through disruptive work relations, absenteeism, and turnover. Such outcomes are likely to have a bad effect on the line manager's performance appraisal and, ultimately, his or her personal career success.

Effectively motivating and controlling performance through a formal performance review process involves three critical stages. The first, and arguably most important, is the initial meeting of the manager and subordinate to clarify expectations regarding the standards of performance. Making clear that one dimension of performance is the subordinate's relations with co-workers, establishing standards of appropriate social-sexual conduct, and emphasizing that such relations are an integral part of the performance review process signal what behavior is valued and rewarded. Explicity defining acceptable social-sexual conduct as one component of performance is a necessary first step in managing employee behavior through the performance review process.

The second critical aspect of the performance review process the formal performance review/feedback session with the employee. In most review sessions, a performance appraisal form is used to guide the manager-subordinate dialogue. Categories like "communication," "working with others," and "professional conduct" are common to many companies' appraisal/feedback forms. During the appraisal review, the line manager can quite naturally discuss the subordinate's social-sexual conduct under these dimensions of performance. For example, subordinates who interact with opposite sex co-workers in a professional manner and develop positive working relationships should be explicity commended and rated favorably. By contrast, employees who frequently tell sexually oriented jokes, make unwanted advances, whistle, or leer at employees of the opposite sex should be confronted about such behavior and their performance rating should reflect this unacceptable work-related behavior.

The third critical activity in any successful performance review process involves relating rewards to performance. The motivating potential of any reward system depends on how strongly rewards are linked to the desired behavior. All too often organizations proclaim their commitment to a harassment-free work place, then tolerate offensive social-sexual conduct, ignore such conduct in allocating rewards, or even worse, reward such conduct (praising a "good sense of humor" based on off-color jokes and stories). Line managers must be willing to withhold pay raises, promotions, and other valued rewards when subordinates fail to conform to acceptable standards of performance, including acceptable standards of social-sexual conduct.

Managing individual performance is certainly not limited to the formal performance appraisal process. Effective managers provide subordinates with informal day-to-day feedback regarding their performance. Line managers who are sensitive to the importance of a harassment-free environment, who make a point of observing employees in interaction, and who give timely feedback on performance-related behavior of their employees will see a substantial effect on these behavior. Day-to-day interaction provides enormous opportunity for informal rewards (praise, compliments, favored assignments) and sanctions (reproach, disapproval, reprimand) that directly influence other employees by demonstrating the consequences of such behavior.

In addition to organizational entry experiences and day-to-day performance expectations, employees' work-related behavior is influenced by the particular physical and social cues they see in the workplace. Both through modeling appropriate behavior and by managing the physical setting, line managers can create a climate that discourages sexual harassment and influences the learning process of their subordinates.

"A picture is worth a thousand words." In current management jargon, this translates into "leadership by example" and "role modeling." Regardless of what we call it, we do know that a great deal of our behavior is learned through observing others. Line managers, by their everyday interaction with employees, send powerful messages about acceptable standards of workplace behavior. Managers who tell of laugh at risque jokes encourage similar behavior in their employees. Managers who refer to female employees as "honey" set a tone for other employees to follow. Managers who explain a female employee's anger or irritability on the basis of stereotyped, gender-related" illnesses" encourage those same views in their subordinates. Quite unintentionally, line managers can undermine other efforts at preventing sexual harassment through such "harmless" everyday behavior.

More often, however, the one aspect of the workplace that most undermines proactive efforts at reducing sexual harassment is the physical environment. At a recent meeting of HR directors from the divisions of a Fortune 100 company, a show of hands indicated that all 35 divisions had promulgated sexual harassment policies, that signs were prominently posted indicating that it was illegal, and that training sessions had been held with line managers to sensitize them to the problem. Another show of hands indicated that over half of the divisions had nude pin-ups displayed in some of their factories and many had "girlie" calendars on the walls (one, in fact, was a calendar promoting products of one of the company's own divisions).

Line managers can take steps to maintain a workplace environment free of symbols that suggest that sexually-oriented themes are tolerated in the workplace. Removing sexually-explicit pictures and calendars is an obvious step. Yet, restrooms with sexually explicit graffiti, fax machines used to transmit the latest round of risque jokes, open circulation of offensive cartoons, and practical jokes with sexual innuendo aimed at female employees send powerful signals that such behavior is harmless and just part of normal social-sexual interaction. Far from harmless, courts have found that such practices can be "sufficiently pervasive so as to create a hostile and offensive work environment" and have held those involved, as well as managers who should have controlled these activities, liable in sexual harassment cases. In fact, a very recent case awarded a female worker co-worker almost $700,000 on the basis of sexually-explicit joke aimed at her.

Handling complaints and resolving employee conflict have always been part of the line manager's job, albeit a part no one relishes. Recent court rulings have underscored the importance of this responsibility in incidents of sexual harassment; many organizations with established policies and grievance procedures still have been held legally liable because line managers failed to pursue harassment complaints or pursued them improperly.

Depending on the policies of the organization, the line manager's tasks may include conducting "intake" interviews with complainants, apprising them of the appropriate redress procedures to follow, referring them to the appropriate organizational unit or official for handling complaints, gathering information as part of the investigation of complaints, assisting in adjudication of complaints, aiding in recommending and implementing disciplinary action, and following up to make sure incidents of harassment have ceased. Regardless of the scope of the line manager's responsibilities, sexual harassment complaints involve special problems that call for four special skills on the part of line managers: being supportive of the grievance process, knowing the organization's established procedures and guidelines, acting impartially, and maintaining confidentially.

An employee who comes forth with a sexual harrassment complaints is likely to be uncomfortable and emotionally distressed. What's more, studies have demonstrated that a large proportion of sexual harrassment incidents go unreported for fear of reprisals by supervisors or others in the organization. In such an atmosphere, the need for line managers to be supportive of the complainant's is crucial. Most employees are reluctant to pursue a complaint, and line managers who scoff at the notion that an incident might have occurred, who trivialize the incident as just a little harmless fun, who make complainants feel guilty about the potential consequences to the accused if found guilty, or who openly doubt the complainant's version of the incident, simply confirm all of the worst fears of complainants and reinforce the reluctance of other victims to come forward.

Most often, the line manager is involved in a sexual harrassment complaint at the very early stage, usually as the person to whom the complaint is first reported. Complainants are generally seeking advice about their rights to pursue the issue and the procedures to be used. The line manager must be fully knowledgeable about the organization's sexual harrassment complaint procedures in order to properly advise a complainant, refer the complainant to the appropriate next step, and build trust in the mind of the complainant that such procedures are well-established, are to be used if necessary, will take the complaint seriously, and will protect the complainant's rights.

The issue of protecting the rights of individuals in a sexual harrassment complaint - the accused as well as the accuser - is particularly sensitive and puts enormous burden on the line manager. Harrassment complaints, whether well-founded or ill-founded, can do much harm to both parties and disrupt working relations among a wider number of employees. Although line managers must be supportive of the complainant's rights to pursue complaint, line managers must also act impartially throughout the various stages of the grievance process. Fair and impartial behavior on the part of line managers is legally required, is necessary for protecting the parties' rights, and, equally important, is essential for maintaining a climate of trust in the process.

One lapse in the integrity of the way sexual harrassment complaints are handled seriously undermines that trust. Maintaining the utmost confidentiality in all phases of complaint who publicly identify the parties involved, who discuss the details of the complaint, who make light of the complaint or incident, and who, often unintentionally, single out involved individuals for special treatment not only undermine the fairness of the investigation and decision in the particular case but also undermine confidence in the process in general. Given the highly emotional atmosphere surrounding incidents of inappropriate social-sexual conduct, breeches of confidentiality can have serious personal, organizational, and legal consequences.

Sustaining a harrassment-free environment does not require new and exotic programs or procedures. In fact, most efforts fail precisely because they are perceived as the latest "fad," are seen as the responsibility of staff specialists, generally are shortlived, and are never integrated into the organization's normal everyday functioning. Efforts at preventing sexual harrassment are most likely to be successful if they are "institutionalized" in the daily round of work life. Line managers, through their routine managerial responsibilities, are in a unique position to do just that.

Self-interest is a powerful motivator of behavior. Line managers have a strong incentive to take action to prevent sexual environment. The four "front-line" defenses discussed in this article provide ample opportunity for line managers to enhance the performance of their employees, the work relations in their work unit, and, ultimately, their own managerial success.

Further Reading

Champagne P.J. and R.B. McAffee. "Auditing Secual Harasssment," Personnel Journal, June, 124-139, (1989). Crary M. "Managing Attraction and Intimacy at Work," Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 14, No. 4, 27-41, (1987). Gutek B.A. Sex and the Workplace: The Impact of Sexual Behavior and Harassment on Women, Men and the Organization, Jossey-Bass, (1985). Sandroff R. "Sexual Harrassment in the Fortune 500," Working Women, December, 69-73, (1988). Sullivan G.M. and W.A. Nowlin. "Critical New Aspects of Sex Harrassment Law," Labor Law Journal, 617-624, (1986). Thomann D.A., D.E. Strickland and J.L. Gibbons. "An Organizational Development Approach to Preventing Secual Harrassment: Developing Shared Commitment Through Awareness Training," College and University Personnel Association Journal, Vol. 40, No. 3, 34-43, (1989).

Daniel A. Thomann, Ph.D. and Daniel E. Strickland are with the department of management at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Thomann, Daniel A.; Strickland, Donald E.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:May 1, 1990
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